In the years I was away from the Sydney music scene, I kept receiving the occasional CD and tip indicating the kind of bands I’ve always loved (independent of attitude, combining intelligence with sarcasm and of course powerful music played with finesse) were somehow still surviving despite the decline of venues and the almost complete takeover of record companies (and stores) by the mindless mass marketing of mush.
The Bad Hats (later the Lang Langs) were one of these sparks lighting up my wilderness, along with the Pink Fits, Monstrous Blues, and – now that I am back in the Big Smoke – I’m pleased to see such delights as The Men From UNCLE, Dead Rabids, Ned Alphabet, Chickenstones and the magnificent Bosom continuing to raise high the flag of their generational forebears in fighting the war against the jive.
The following interview with The Lang Langs was conducted in a mysterious rehearsal space in Leichhardt tucked away behind Parramatta Road bridal shops and Italian delis.
Michael (guitar) John (bass) Charles (guitar and lead vocals) Dave (drums).
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JJ: I’ve heard various rumours as to where the name Lang Langs came from: it’s something to with classic Australian cars of the 1960s, something to do with a Chinese classical musician who toured her last year and played the opera house, and of course unspecified and murky drug references…
Charles: All of the above are true.
JJ: And I heard some of you were linked to a previous band called the Bad Hats…
Dave: At one point there were two bands in Sydney by that name – us and a country band. It got confusing before we knew about the other band. I’d be listening to Big Daddy K’s show and he’d announce that the Bad Hats were playing the Enmore and I’d think “I haven’t be told about that gig, I must have been sacked…”
Charles: There were several years there where we were tangled up in a savage law suit with the other Bad Hats.
JJ: How long have you guys been going?
Charles: Our current guise goes back to 2004, but it was 2002 originally when it was John, me and Michael McCullough the original drummer.
JJ: So how did you guys actually meet up?
John: I used to read the ads at the back of the original Drum Media for a laugh…I was always intrigued by how demanding people were…Must Have This, Must Have That…then you’d read what they were into and wonder who would ever ring them up.
JJ: This is the ad that listed Charles' literary influences…
John: It basically said “suit ex-punks who want to embarrass their children” – and even though I’m childless, I thought this is coming from the right area! Plus the fact that it mentioned The Kinks as a musical influence immediately got my attention. But the clincher was it said “infrequent rehearsals.”
The lack of the word Must in the ad and the lack of requiring IMMEDIATE commitment to go All the Way was totally appealing.
Charles: We found Michael through an ad in the Drum too. His ad said “suit timewasters” – plus it added “influences the Sunnyboys and the Saints”. We said “we’ve got to give this guy a call!
JJ: So Dave, how did you luck into this bunch of timewasting, sporadic rehearsers?
Dave: Johnno and I had been doing bass/drum experiments together for many years.
John: And we’re still trying to get it right…
JJ: So what came first for the Bad Hats/Lang Langs…rehearsing, recording or gigging?
Charles: Originally we were rehearsing – sporadically, of course.
John: And then it became more regular as it all clicked with Charles, myself and our original drummer Michael and we were having good fun.
JJ: What images of really spectacularly good/bad bands did you have in mind when you first contacted Charles and thought “I might give this a go – we might attain the heights/depths of ….”?
Michael: My tastes are pretty broad, so I was just hoping the other guys might like even a quarter of the bands I’m into. So when I came along and heard overtones of The Saints, Radio Birdman, The Ramones, The Stones, The Who/Kinks and influences of garage punk/underground like The Flamin Groovies, it was a relief to be playing with like-minded people. And that there wasn’t an obvious heavy metal or Carpenters or Barry Manilow influence.
Charles: Not yet, anyway…
John: We’re gradually in our old age moving in that direction…
Dave: I grew up listening to my brothers record collection, bands like Free, Bad Company, Mott The Hoople, then moved to Sydney and was happily bombarded with Radio Birdman and later on The Screaming Tribesman.
John: I’ve always loved music ever since being a little kid. My earliest memories were of seeing people like The Beatles, Stones and The Who on TV – but also Australian groups like The Easybeats.
Dave: I played in a band when I was 13 – we used to play heavy metal. We played two gigs, nearly three, but the tire blew out on dad’s trailer (he was carting the gear). That band was called Venom.
Michael: I played briefly in a punk band – very rough – without a name. Very punk. We had three guitarists (no-one wanted to swap to bass) and a drummer. And one of the guitarists was also the singer (we should have forced him to play bass!) Then I didn’t play for 10 years until I joined these guys. Still had the same guitar and strings, and to my eternal shame when I did finally change the strings I discovered a knot tied in one – I’d was too cheap (and punk) to replace it!
One of the punk band did become famous in that he joined a band which used to support an Angels cover band
Charles: It gets no better than that! The pinnacle of a career!
John: Dave and I met in 1985 and have been playing together on and off ever since. We had a party band going in the late 80s which played regularly. He lived in an amazing house in Redfern – an old bank building – where heaps of people like The Kelpies and Soggy Porridge lived and played. Those were great days, when young people got out and about and played with guitars…
JJ: Tell us about the LangLangs’ songs. They seem pretty diverse…
Charles: I guess I have a pretty broad concept of what a good song is because my father worked with the big Melbourne-based theatrical company JC Williamsons so I grew with a lot of scores from musicals of the 1950’s and 60s like Camelot and My Fair Lady played around the house. People will shrink in horror when I say my music actually goes back to things like that. It’s like Gilbert and Sullivan meets Alice Cooper. There’s an element of theatricality to a lot of our songs…
JJ: So that explains You Only Lang Twice, the Lang Langs’ James Bond concept CD could also have been named Dr No, The Musical…
Charles: Yes we all share – particularly John and me – a love for the early James Bond films. My songs are really about characters…it’s not me singing a song about me. Except of course Nude for Satan which is autobiographical.
Basically this is what Shakespeare did…although we see ourselves appealing to a more hep audience.
JJ: He says modestly…
Charles: If I wrote just about my life it would be about going to the supermarket and catching the bus into the city, or real estate. (Thinks) Actually I have written a song about satanic real estate agents – Damned, Damned, Damned and Divine - but we haven’t rehearsed it yet. It’s another of the few LangLangs songs based on real life.
JJ: Can you think of any bands who the Lang Langs visually or musically approach?
Dave: The Runaways? The 60s influences you might have heard in The Screaming Tribesmen, The Hoodoo Gurus are there, but the songs that Charles has been writing are quite diverse. Frank Sinatra Has A Cold is one of a number of very laid-back almost jazzy numbers, but there are also the Radio Birdman/Ramones paced ones. I wouldn’t be happy playing repetitive stuff, like your average blues band….
Charles: I’m interested in the amount of times bee themes feature in blues songs: honey bees, king bees, queen bees…the travelling riverside bee-keeping blues…
John: Speaking of repetition in music, I have a theory that Salsa music is only one song. I like it – it’s great! – but I’m convinced it’s only one tune.
Michael: Cajun music is like that too.
JJ: So Charles, you are the wordsmith of the band?
Charles: Most of the words come from me – apart from one line from John
John: “They don’t care”…from Ice Babes In Muscle Cars which was actually a collaborative effort by email. At one point I wrote “I don’t care”, to which Charles replied “that’s brilliant!”
Charles: There was actually a band in Sydney in the late '70s who did a song called Hilton Bomber which had the line “Hilton Bomber he don’t care!” which I thought was a kind of life-defining statement…
JJ: Your music is very driving, powerful. Using a Bad News/Spinal Tap metaphor, it takes no prisoners. If I had to describe it, it would be like Dick Dale joins the Visitors and they end up jamming with the Who …
Apart from sporadic rehearsals, you also have a history of doing brilliant but sporadic, even novel kind of gigs playing places like bowling clubs, radio station benefits and Chinese club basements to small and often confused crowds…and you have a gang of mates like The Men From UNCLE and The Dead Rabids who also play awesome shows but don’t seem to fit into any specific scene either.
So how did you make the transition from rehearsal studios to live gigs?
Charles: We’ve played with other bands but we get along really well with the Men from UNCLE and Dead Rabids; the gigs feel like a party. The Rock’n’Writers gigs we’ve done with them are a good way to get people along who might otherwise not bother coming. It’s dispiriting when you do gigs with only five people there.
John:…Especially when four of them are onstage!
JJ: The venues you’ve played remind me of earlier days in Sydney rock’n’roll when people would find strange and wonderful places to play simply because there weren’t venues to accommodate them. This could be in the mid-1950s or in any decade…inventive (or desperate) musicians will always find somewhere to gig!
The market is also not very big for anything involving intelligence, satire, humour…but because of yours you have ended up with some interesting airplay! Tell us about the Roy and H.G. connection.
John: I was listening to Roy and H.G. on JJJ one Sunday and it was the section of the show where they did giveaways to listeners who rang in. I was doing something else but suddenly I heard H.G. make reference to “The Bad Hats’ Ice Babes In Muscle Cars” – which was the name of Hat’s first CD – before going on to discuss something else.
JJ: And you were obviously worried at this point you were having an acid flashback and had imagined the whole thing…
John: Yes, until I downloaded their program later in the week and found the mention was definitely there – the CD was one of the prizes to be given away. JJJ were probably getting ready to send the CD to landfill with the other thousand CDs they get sent every week. Someone must have seen the nude woman on the cover and gone “hey this is stupid, let’s send it over to Roy and H,G,!”
JJ: Yes, this is politically incorrect, so therefore it’s perfect for Roy and H.G….
John: Well she (the woman on the CD cover) is wearing a silver space helmet, so she isn’t technically nude…
Charles: the other connection with Roy and H.G. is that on our new CD we have King Wally Otto – their announcer – doing the narrative of Nude For Satan.
Michael: Yes Robbie McGregor (King Wally Otto) is also the voice of SBS. And the title of "Nude For Satan" (JJ’s note – a standout track on the new EP) actually came from a voiceover he did for a movie they were showing…it was originally an instrumental. I got to know Robbie through work connections and approached him with the Nude For Satan narrative that Charles had recorded over the instrumental. He took one listen, said three words – “an international hit!” – loved it, and wanted to lend his voice to it.
"Nude For Satan" - "Nude For Satan" EP - The Lang Langs 2009
Charles: Nude for Satan is one of those 70’s European existentialist films with people wandering aimlessly around a deserted hotel. It’s terrible. The tedium of the thing put me right off gratuitous vampirism and lesbianism.
John: It did have a couple of see-through nighties though…It was one of a series of cheesy late 60s movies like Vampyros Lesbos that SBS were showing which had great so bad it’s good soundtrack music. So that was also part of the idea behind the Nude For Satan song – hit it with a surf instrumental!
JJ: Which brings me to you playing movies behind the band when you play, films that are remarkably matched to the song tempo. It’s often hard to say where the film images stop and the song starts or vice-versa - Frank Sinatra Has A Cold being a classic example. And your cover art is always spectacular, with strongly visual film images on it…
So where did the idea to run films behind the band come from?
John: It’s just fun to add the visual element of playing films behind us. Why not add something else for people to look at when we’re playing live? I love going to see shows like The Sounds Of Seduction with the Clutch Cargo cartoons playing behind them – I get a real belly laugh. It just adds an extra element: it feels like real entertainment rather than just going to see a bunch of people playing instruments.
JJ: You do a pretty good job of it – it looks very synched to the audience!
John: Well it comes down to luck sometimes and how fast or slow we’re playing on any given night. When we’re playing Frank Sinatra Has A Cold it’s pretty cool if Frank is right there when we’re playing it! And there’s nothing like having Godzilla stalking across a stage to get your attention!
JJ: Even better if you had the real thing, but I guess that could be expensive…
John: We’re working on it.
JJ: Let’s go through your three CDs.
John: The first one was called The Lang Langs AKA The Spinning Wheel CD because of its cover. That was recorded here in January 2005, pretty well put down live with a proper engineer and some guitar and vocal overdubs.
With each recording we like to learn a little more and bump it up to another level.
JJ: With You Only Lang Twice, your second CD, you guys predated the relaunch of the concept album by several years…given that it is a CD of songs that should have been on the Dr No soundtrack but weren’t.
John: Well they actually were, but only in the director’s cut…we spent a whole afternoon on it rather than half an afternoon.
JJ: Have you actually sent copies to Ursula Andress and Sean Connery?
Charles: We’re waiting for Sean and Ursula to come to us.
JJ: Niagara liked the cover – what about the songs?
Charles: I don’t know, but she definitely liked the cover! I gave her a copy at the Sylvania Hitmen gig. She’s got such fantastic presence!
JJ: So the transition to the new one…Nude For Satan, also self-released. The tracks are Nude for Satan, Hot Rod Sinners, Cars Girls Real Feel, Slinky – and then the Spanish instrumental version of Nude For Satan, Desnuda Per Satana.
Charles: There’s some Dick Dale in the instrumental. His tune Taco Stand definitely influenced it.
JJ: So how would you describe the transition from the second CD to this one?
Charles: We were particularly aware of getting all the rhythm tracks right and doing good quality takes of all the solos and vocals. We also spent a lot more time mixing and mastering it.
JJ: Has the cover been decided yet? I’ve seen an Andy Warhol multi-image
John: That was a prototype only.
JJ: So it could feature Satan driving a hot rod past a bunch of girls holding Slinky toys
John: or a taco
JJ: Has it been officially released yet or received airplay?
Charles: We’re getting copies printed up and sent off to a range of people but Big Daddy K at 2RRR has been playing it, Jade at 3DDD in Adelaide also…and I hear that Andrew Stafford, author of "Pig City", has taken a copy back to Brisbane and will be spruiking it up there!
How can people get hold of a copy?
Charles: People can either contact us via our MySpace site or via firstname.lastname@example.org and send blank cheques/money orders. We don’t send them out for free but we can do you a good deal. Well also have some copies for sale at Mojo records in Sydney. So you can order it through them.
JJ: So even though you guys steadfastly swim against the tide of corporatisation, are you worried that Nude For Satan will be the top of the slippery slope down to Lang Langs tshirts, jeans commercials, high rotation videos etc?
Charles: we’re HOPING it’s the top of the slippery slope!
JJ: If Bill Gates happened to get hold of a Lang Langs CD and decided he was bored of charitable philanthropy and wanted to throw some money into the mindless vacuum of rock and roll, would you knock it back?
Charles: We’re prepared to abandon all principles and dignity. We’re just waiting for the right offer.
John: Maybe the rugby league marketing people might pick us up for theme songs. Nude For Satan could almost be written for the NRL.
JJ: Finally, who would you like to have cover one of your songs?
Charles: Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood doing "Wolverine Blues".
Michael: The Hives.
John: Nana Mouskouri.
Charles: More seriously I’d really like to see the Hitmen cover a song. So there you go Johnny, the offer’s on the table!
* J.J. Adams is a former RAM (Rock Australia Magazine) and Sydney Morning Herald music writer.
The Lang Langs play the Winter of Our Discotheque music and rock writers event at the Red Rattler in Wicks Park, Marrickville, Sydney on July 5 from 1-5pm along with The Men From UNCLE, The Dead Rabids and Ned Alphabet with readings from Bob Short and J.J. Adams.
Enter to win a copy of the "Nude For Satan" EP here.